The current turmoil in Canada’s Senate has predictably renewed calls for its abolition.
Prince Edward Island — part of a region that has little to no clout in the 308-member House of Commons — does have a greater voice in the Senate. Four voices, actually, and as a region, Atlantic Canada holds 30 of the 105 seats in the Red Chamber.
That’s not something we should readily give away.
However, the spotlight now being shone on all 105 senators by the actions of a few of their colleagues does make it abundantly clear the “chamber of sober second thought” does need reform.
Clearly, it's time the privilege of appointing senators be taken away from the prime minister of the day. Constituents must be given a say – either directly through the ballot box or by an independent selection committee. Ideally, senatorial candidates would not have to align themselves with any political party. That would bring more independent voices to the chamber, voices that could not be directed by the prime minister who put them there.
Were elections in place today, embattled Senators Mike Duffy from P.E.I., Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and others would surely be weighing their re-election prospects.
Brazeau, facing criminal charges of assault and sexual assault, was officially suspended from the Senate on Wednesday. He’s also one of several senators caught up in a controversy over housing allowances.
It’s caught the attention of Islanders since Duffy was named as one of the senators whose secondary housing expenses are being reviewed by an external auditor. He’s alleged to have claimed more than $33,000 in Senate living allowances that he wasn’t entitled to.
Duffy’s name came to light after questions were raised about his primary residence. Is it Ottawa where he lived and worked before his appointment to the Senate four years ago, or is it his cottage in Cavendish? Reports that he doesn’t have a P.E.I. health card and that he and his wife are identified as non-resident owners of their Cavendish cottage by Island taxation officials did little to support his assertion that his primary residence is in P.E.I.
It’s an important issue for Duffy and other senators under investigation because in order to be appointed in the first place, they had to sign a declaration stating their primary residence is in the province they were appointed to represent.
In a written statement last week, Duffy said he would never do anything to betray the public trust. He said he has a home in P.E.I. as required by law and that he would have no further comment until the review was complete. He meant it, too, choosing to try to avoid the media following a speech in Halifax by taking a back exit through the hotel’s kitchen and chiding one of the scribes to do “adult work.” He would have done better to face the media, if only to repeat what he had written in his release.
Barring a challenge to his actual appointment based on residency requirements, Duffy’s job probably isn’t riding on the outcome of the housing allowance controversy. At worst, he and the others may have to pay the money back.
What they really need is a trip to the polls where voters in each of their constituencies could record their approval or displeasure – where they could decide what, if any, consequence their senator should face.
In fact, had they been forced to gain their admission to the Senate through the ballot box or an independent committee rather than a telephone call from the PM, residency rules would likely have been dealt with prior to the campaign.
With a Senate vacancy coming up next year when Catherine Callbeck retires, the time is right for Prince Edward Island to help bring the institution into the 21st century. Alberta already holds Senate elections and New Brunswick will become the first eastern Canada province to vote for its senators in 2016.
P.E.I. should follow suit, if not staging an election at least coming up with a mechanism that would take the decision out of the prime minister’s hands.
It wouldn’t fix the Senate overnight, but it would give constituents a say in who actually gets to serve there – and who should eventually leave. That’s at least a start.
Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.